PHOTOGRAPHY VIEW; TAKING AS SUBJECT NOTHING MORE THAN SPACE AND LIGHT
By Andy Grundberg
Published: June 5, 1983
In David Haxton's photographs, all the world's a stage. Or perhaps we should say that in his pictures the stage is all we see, since they refer not to the world of people and things, but to the theater of their own existence and the act of their making. By restricting himself to subject matter as mute, immaterial and elemental as space and light, Mr. Haxton fashions images of a splendid purity and isolation that sets them apart from most photography that has come to be called fabricated.
All his color work since the mid-1970's shares a common repertory of subject matter and formal interests. A Haxton photograph depicts a studio setting in which broad sheets of photographic backdrop paper hang like laundry on a line. The sheets are in a variety of subtle colors, some of them quite lovely, and they usually have the appearance of Swiss cheese due to an overall pattern of gashes and gouges inflicted on them by the artist. About the only other ''event'' in these pictures is the presence of light, which comes from several sources and gives the paper a delicious glow. As if to acknowledge the power of light, Mr. Haxton often has included his light sources, as well as his electrical cords and light stands, within the frame.
When the 40-year-old artist began making these kinds of images in 1975, he presented them as diptychs, usually with the right image showing the same scene as the left, only under a different light - tungsten in one, flourescent in the other. By 1980 he had changed to single images, although each was bifurcated internally by the edge of one of his sheets of paper. These pictures maintained the formal dialetics of the diptychs - playing off dimensionality and flatness, light and shadow, cool and warm colors -while seeming more complicated because of their condensation. But they also retained some of the formulaic air that pervaded the earlier photographs, an air that could make the work seem as much exercise as expression.
In Mr. Haxton's new work, which can be seen at Sonnabend Gallery (420 West Broadway) through June 18, the reliance on the device of the diptych - real or apparent -has been reduced to a vestige. The 12 large color prints displayed not only hold the wall, they do so with an assurance that signals the maturation of an original vision. While Mr. Haxton remains committed to filmmaking as a major part of his creative endeavor (his films have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere), it is clear that by themselves his photographs constitute no mean achievement.
While they continue to make use of studio backdrop paper and the vagaries of light, the new pictures have several things different about them. The holes cut into the paper now seem premeditated rather than autistic, taking the form of large and small rectangles instead of slashes (the rectangles are a kind of atavistic picture-maker's mark). The light is no longer exclusively an artificial blend of tungsten photo lights and fluorescents, but in several pictures includes natural daylight. In many cases the light passes through a cut-out roll of paper ''offstage,'' so that the shadows in the scene mimic and interpenetrate the shapes of the paper we observe. Finally, there are two photographs in which strings hang down in front of the paper backdrops like overcooked graffiti.
The effects Mr. Haxton achieves with these limited materials are surprisingly diverse. The planes of the several sheets of paper in each image interact in ways that often are magical, and the light ranges from the overtly sweet (like that filtered through a trellis on a summer day) to a melodramatic, spotlighted harshness. His colors are consistently gorgeous. Moreover, the artistic self-consciousness that was such a presence in his earlier work has become less noticeable. Although shards of paper excised from the hanging sheets remain in plain sight - on the cutting-room floor, as it were - there is no longer such an emphasis on including the tools of the pictures' making. As a result, the images are more transparent than before, and more mysterious. Mr. Haxton remains committed to the hermetic world of the artist's studio, but in their own way his photographs are more expressive than most photographs taken outside on the street.
Perhaps his almost religious devotion to a form of expression that borders on abstraction is what has led some observers of his work to compare it to painting. The critic Eugenia Parry Janis, in the book ''One of a Kind,'' goes so far as to suggest that his photographs ''recall the grandeur of Rothko in their exaltation of warm, airless radiance.'' But for all his abilities as a colorist - which can include the coolness of pink and white, as well as the warmth of yellow and magenta - and his allegiance to the studio, Mr. Haxton seems less allied to Abstract Expressionist painters than to a more current generation of artists who prefer to work in the interstices between media.
I'm thinking of such artists as William Wegman, whose work consists of videotapes, photographs and drawings; Robert Cumming, who does photography, drawing, painting and sculpture, and Michael Smith, a performance/ video/ installation artist who occasionally exhibits photographs as well. Like these artists and a great many others, Mr. Haxton has one foot in photography and the other somewhere else. But more importantly, his work and theirs tends to override the separations between painting, sculpture, drawing, film, video and photography. What distinguishes these artists from traditional photographers - as well as from traditional painters, et al. - is that their energies are not focused on a particular medium, but on such meta-media preoccupations as the nature of perception, the position of the artist within contemporary culture and even (let us hope Rothko is not listening from above) humor.
Much as these artists are distinct from the part of 20th-century photographic practice that emphasizes the medium's uniqueness vis-avis the other arts, they are not without precedent. The concern for light in Mr. Haxton's photographs, for instance, is reminiscent of such imagery of the 20's and 30's as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's photograms, Man Ray's Rayographs and Francis Bruguiere's cut-paper abstractions. These artist/ photographers, together with El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch, constitute a Modernist alternative to the American Purism of Alfred Stieglitz and Group F/64. They are different not only in terms of the variety of media in which they choose to work, but also in their open attitudes about the definition of art itself. Their particular brand of Modernism, which was open-ended and interdisciplinary, has been overlooked in the recent rush to pronounce Modernism reductivist and isolationist, but its continued vitality is testified to in photographs like Mr. Haxton's.
(The current exhibition of photographs by Man Ray at the Robert Miller Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, suggests some of the similarities between Mr. Haxton's work and that of this earlier generation of artists. The pictures, which date from 1936, are of sculptural models of algebraic equations that Man Ray discovered at a science institute. Ten years later he used the forms and the photographs as subject matter for a series of paintings to which he arbitrarily assigned titles from Shakespeare's plays. Seeing Mr. Haxton's pictures in the light of Man Ray's, one becomes aware of the sculptural component of their carefully disheveled environment, and of how readily they might be transformed into something else - a set for a film, perhaps? Man Ray's pictures are on view through June 30.)
Illustrations: photo of David Haxton photograph